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The oldest photograph of a human being, from 1832

News Photography firsts

24 November 2016 Daniel Curtis

Ever wondered about the first photograph ever taken? Or what the first colour photograph looked like?

Maybe as a social media user you interested in the first ever Instagram Image? In this blog, we take a look at some of the “firsts” in photography, uncovering the progression of images and their part in influencing history.

1826: world’s first surviving photograph

Captured by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the resulting image was created using a process called ‘heliography’ that the Frenchman himself invented. Niépce’s ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’, taken from the upstairs window of his estate in Burgundy, France, involved using Bitumen of Judea (a light sensitive, naturally occurring asphalt) as a coating.

The Bitumen hardened in proportion to the areas that were exposed to light, creating a vague, but just about noticeable, outline of the buildings in Niépce’s estate.


View from the Window at Le Gras (manually enhanced)

1832: oldest photograph of a human being

By total accident, Louis Daguerre aimed to capture the Boulevard du Temple, a Parisian thoroughfare, but only actually caught a man who stood still having his shoes polished. The long exposure time meant that most figures and passing horse-driven carriages were not stationary long enough to make a significant impression on the final photograph. The photograph can be seen at the top of this blog.

1845: first photograph of the Sun

French physicists Louis Fizeau and Leon Foucault used a Daguerreotype process to capture the very first photograph of the Sun. Daguerreotypy was a commonly-used photographic process between 1839 and 1860, involving the exposure of light to a light-sensitive, silver-plated surface. Exposure in a camera took as long as deemed necessary, this one being 1/60 of a second.

1847: first photographs capturing the humans smiling

It was perhaps due to this long exposure time that early photographs of people smiling were very rare. Daguerreotype images took around 60-90 seconds to expose, making it difficult for subjects to hold such an expression. Other theories behind the lack of smiles also included poor dental hygiene and perhaps because smiling for a photograph had not yet become a cultural norm.

1861: first colour photograph

The process used to capture this image of a multi-coloured ribbon is credited to mathematical physicist, James Clerk Maxwell. It is understood that the inventor of the SLR camera, Thomas Sutton, was the man to press the shutter button.


Tartan Ribbon

1946: first photograph taken of the Earth

As some of our past blogs have shown, photography has always played an important part in communicating mankind’s explorations of space. Taken from an altitude of 65 miles from a camera attached to a V-2 missile launched from the Mexico desert, a new frame was captured every 1.5 seconds during its ascent.

1957: first digital photograph

The first digital photograph was taken of Russell Kirsch’s son, almost 20 years before Kodak invented the first digital camera. Although the photograph was initially taken on film, it was then reproduced using a digital scan of the image, the technology for which had been developed by Kirsch himself.


Walden Kirsch

2009: first digital photograph of a US president

Arguably the most media-savvy president ever to have entered the White House, it seems only right that Barack Obama would be the first US president to have his official portrait taken with a digital camera. Shot by official White House photographer, Pete Souza, the photograph was taken using the Canon 5D Mark II.

2010: first Instagram photograph

Taken by CEO and co-founder of the popular photo-sharing platform, Kevin Systrom, the image features a golden retriever next to a taco stand in Todos Santos, Mexico. Instagram is now infamous for providing a platform for dog and animal-lovers alike to view and upload endless amounts of photographs and videos featuring their favourite creatures.

A photo posted by Kevin Systrom (@kevin) on


Even from this small selection of photographic firsts, it is clear to see just how far this incredible medium has come and the possibilities that it continues to offer in terms of how we see and experience the world.

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